Buenos Aires: Lunch at Your Leisure
In Buenos Aires, lunch is rarely a grab-and-go affair; it's an hours-long paean to everyday pleasures, both culinary and conversational
Ten years ago, freshly graduated from university with a history degree and therefore hopelessly unemployed, I left my parents’ house in Toronto and moved to Buenos Aires on a whim. I was 23 and wanted to be a foreign correspondent. Argentina was recovering from a massive economic collapse and a pivotal presidential election—the first since the riots that had toppled five successive governments in the span of a few weeks—which meant I could probably sell a few stories to some Canadian newspapers back home.
I arrived in the thick of the turmoil but quickly fell into the rhythms of the city. I loved the architecture, a mixture of Belle Époque buildings and sweaty concrete apartment blocks. And I adored the food, heavily Italian-influenced, but with Spanish flavors, South American ingredients, and an Argentine cattleman’s helping of beef. There were storefront pizzerias serving thick slices of cheesy pies and baked empanadas, and grand steak houses, called parrillas, on virtually every block. Street vendors spread along the city’s riverfront offered delicious dark red pork and beef sausages, their casings crisp from hot embers, split and stuffed into crusty white buns with liberal spoonfuls of herb-packed chimichurri and peppery salsa criolla.
My biggest discovery, however, wasn’t so much a single victual as an entire meal: namely lunch. A window into the city’s diverse culinary history, with its European and Latin accents, lunch is Buenos Aires’ main event—a meal unfolding between a tiny breakfast and a dinner that happens 10 to 12 hours later. It seemed each interview I did for the newspapers, be it with a pollster, a journalist, or a professor, involved a multicourse, wine-soaked marathon of politics, economics, and gossip. These were lunches like the ones I’d read about in books and thought belonged to a bygone era, a culinary act of derring-do once partaken of by decadent writers like Ernest Hemingway and insatiable corporate titans.
Sometimes the meals were upscale, a parade of endless dishes served to us reverently by tuxedo-clad waiters. Others were more low-key: a couple beef empanadas and a slice of flan eaten at a picnic table, or a relaxed sit-down lunch at El Renaciente, a lovingly worn-down spot near my apartment in Palermo. There, my companions and I would dine on rice and veal covered in a garlicky, winey sauce smothered in onions, peppers, and tomatoes that we’d wash down with cheap red wine cut with seltzer. Other days I’d find myself at asados—grilled feasts in backyards attended by friends and family—where thick cuts of charbroiled meat would be accompanied by refined sides like smoky mushroom caps stuffed with crumbled chorizo and cooked slowly over the parrilla grill until they became almost creamy in texture. No matter the locale, the lunches went on for hours, as diners savored the food and the pleasure of one another’s company.
I learned that when I wanted to get actual writing done, I had to forgo my food marathons and pop into Pepe’s, a cafeteria downtown where the baked ham, egg, and tomato pie was cheap and filling. (Alas, sometimes even there I’d find myself lured into hours-long conversations at the lunch counter.)
Champiñones Rellenos de Chorizo (Chorizo-Stuffed Mushrooms)
Allegedly I was there covering politics. In reality, I’d become a lunch correspondent. I found myself filling notebooks with quotes on the state of the nation as I gorged, surreptitiously observing the ritual pacing of the meal from the first bite of bread and butter to the drawn out sips of a final cortado, an espresso with steamed milk, knowing—fearing really—that the conversation would end and the real world would resume once the last drop was gone. When I’d get back to my apartment, I’d strip off my suit and collapse on the couch, tending to the rest of the day’s work with nothing more than a snore. In the mornings, I’d pull myself together and manage to file my stories on time. I stayed in this happy, and hapless, state—eating, sleeping, writing, eating—for two years.
When I returned to Toronto, it was obvious that the leisurely lunch culture I’d grown accustomed to just didn’t exist in North America. When I suggested meeting for lunch, my friends laughed me off. “Seriously?” they’d say. “Who has time for lunch?” Lunch was a sign of weakness. When someone conceded to join me for one, it usually involved a rushed catching-up in a food court. At least it was better than what passed for lunch for my wife Lauren: a few hurried bites in front of the computer, one hand glued to her mouse. I pined for Buenos Aires.
When I learned from friends this past fall that the city’s long lunch was falling victim to the country’s economic progress—a result of global business culture taking root in the city—and a proliferation of eat-and-run restaurants, I panicked and booked a flight. I needed to recapture those blissful food-filled afternoons while they still existed.
What I witnessed when I landed did little to assuage my fears. Near the Presidential Palace, young office workers lined up for the hottest thing to hit the city in decades: an American-style salad bar where you could pack a plastic container with as many buffet items as would fit. As I watched these functionaries in their business clothes, ladling in corn salad, hearts of palm, and shredded lettuce with the familiar glazed look of my friends back home, I knew they were destined to eat at their desks, eyes glued to the screen. Alone.
Jangled, I called my friend Andrés Jacob, a Porteño—slang for a Buenos Aires native—with whom I’d passed countless lunch hours. He told me to meet him at Sabot, a clubby lunch-only refuge in the city’s financial district, a wood-paneled palace of the leisure class complete with polished silverware, big-shot politicians, and classic Argentine cooking. Here, the lunch culture was alive and well. But over a cornucopia of Argentine dishes—revuelto gramajo, fluffy eggs scrambled with olive oil, ham, and fried shoestring potatoes; escalopes de milanesa de lomo, crispy breaded medallions of veal; lenguado grille, baked filet of sole, served with simple boiled potatoes dressed tableside in sweet and hot Spanish pimentón—Andrés lamented the general state of dining culture. “It’s less and less now, the three-course lunch,” he said. “It’s important to sit down, to talk. No matter if it’s cheap or expensive, it’s the time that’s the value.”
The afternoon sauntered on, and even by 3:30 most of the tables were still filled, customers lingering over coffee or, in the case of the couple behind us, a bottle of champagne. Toward the end of the meal, Ramon Couñago, Sabot’s owner for the past 41 years, joined us. “Ninety percent of my guests come here to talk business,” he said. “No one eats for less than two hours. Sometimes coffee can last an hour alone!”
I was relieved to find over the course of the next few days that while my favorite meal may indeed be threatened, bastions of the long lunch could still be found in every quarter of the sprawling city, some grand like Sabot, others modest but no less worthy of a leisurely repast. I met my friend Dawn Makinson—a fellow Canadian journalist who had wisely settled here—at Martita, a mom-and-pop restaurant in the middle-class Boedo neighborhood. Marta, the gregarious cook-owner who took our order in an apron, served us the flakiest empanadas I’ve ever eaten. These mini versions of the traditional Spanish meat pie are generally baked in Buenos Aires, not fried as they are in the rest of Latin America. Stuffed with everything from a combination of beef, raisins, and olives—a nod to the Middle Eastern settlers who came to the city around the onset of World War I—to corn with béchamel sauce, courtesy of the French, they’re a handheld glimpse into the city’s immigrant-rich history. Marta’s contained spicy beef, wrapped in crimped pastry and baked to golden perfection. I had to adjust my position to eat them, leaning over the table so I wouldn’t ruin my pants as the juicy filling dripped out—the sign of a great empanada.
Later that week, I scheduled a lunch date with Héctor Marini, a bookish retiree and self-styled expert on the long lunch. I found him busy preparing a late afternoon lunch of matambre a la pizza, or “steak pizza,” an Argentine twist on veal Parmesan—a dish that pointed at both the country’s Italian influences and its cattle-ranching past—with a delicate “crust” of milk-soaked flank steak slathered in tomato sauce and covered with gooey mozzarella cheese.
Indeed, Marini said, it was the cattle industry we had to thank not only for our lunch, but for Buenos Aires’ lunchtime tradition as a whole. “Our gaucho ancestors didn’t have time for a proper breakfast,” he explained as we dug into the dish, the bright sauce offsetting the creamy cheese and rich meat. “They had to get the animals moving.” The cowboys would take just a few moments when they woke to heat up water for maté (the country’s staple bitter tea), which they’d drink while horseback. After a morning of riding, they’d stop, make a fire, and grill up a huge cut of meat—the precursor to the asados I’d attended—then sleep in the shade to avoid the hot sun. In camp at night, they’d eat a light dinner and sing by the fire. This schedule—small breakfast, big long lunch, late modest dinner—had been passed down through the generations.
These days, Marini continued, the midday break has become an antidote to the travails of modern life. While the rest of Argentina follows a siesta tradition, closing up schools and businesses for the afternoon, Buenos Aires chugs along all day. Lunch is the Porteño‘s necessary escape from the grinding traffic, protests, choking exhaust, and chaos that define this city.
As my return to Toronto and its mad-dash midday meals loomed ever nearer, I wanted to commemorate my final Argentine lunch with proper fanfare. The day before my flight, I met Andrés at Don Carlos (officially Carlitos de la Boca), a corner bodegón, or bistro, in the historic La Boca neighborhood that personifies the city’s generous lunch spirit like no other. It’s one of the first spots Andrés introduced me to when I first moved here in my 20s and remains my sentimental favorite.
We sat down at a wooden bistro table in the restaurant’s small dining room, and owner Carlos Zinola, white-haired now but as laid-back as I remembered, came by to chat. He was born in the same house where his eponymous cash-only restaurant now resides, and he’s run it with his wife Marta and daughter Gabriela as a benevolent culinary dictatorship since 1970.
“My grandmother was Italian,” Carlos said. “She brought out a plate and I had to eat it, but everything she put in front of me was the best I’d ever had.”
In that same spirit, there are no menus at the restaurant. Carlos asks how hungry you are, and the dishes fly fast and furious from his kitchen. It is here that the city’s Italian heritage is really on display. From the second Andrés and I sat down, small plates filled the table: broccolini with olive oil and cracked pepper, paper-thin slices of imported Italian mortadella, freshly prepared tuna salad with chunks of boiled potatoes. Next came meats he tended to on the chorizo and blood sausages, sweetbreads cooked long and low then seared on high so a crunchy crust gave way to a tender interior. “Some wine?” Carlos stopped by throughout the meal to uncork excellent bottles. Andrés and I struggled to keep pace, but Carlos kept piling it on. Finally, we begged for mercy.
But no! There were desserts, all made by Gabriela: citrus-scented slices of bread pudding, a dense chocolate tart, and creamy passion fruit custard. “You see why it’s mostly foreigners who come to lunch here now?” Carlos remarked with a mixture of pride and longing, nearly four hours into our meal. The sun had begun to set. “You don’t go back to work after this. It’s violent, this lunch!”
Later that night, still reeling, I called Lauren back in Toronto. “What did you do today?” I asked. She gave me a rundown of her day: a quick breakfast at home, a little work, cleanup around the house, a little more work, some grocery shopping, and dinner with her mother.
“What about you?” she asked.
“Lunch,” I said. “Just lunch.”